Apparently parenthood makes a person more unhappy than divorce, unemployment and even the death of a partner, according to a study published this month in the journal Demography.  If this is what journals and papers around the world are headlining, it doesn’t bode well for future birth rates.

The aim of the study was to better understand widespread low birth rates and why so many couples stop at one child, even when they have previously said that they want more.  For example, Germany’s current birth rate has remained at only 1.5 children per woman over the last 40 years, even though in surveys a majority of people say that they would like more than that. 

Researchers Rachel Margolis, a sociology researcher at the University of Western Ontario, and Mikko Myrskylä, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, followed 2,016 Germans from childlessness until at least two years after the birth of their first child. Participants were then asked to rate their happiness from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied) in response to the question, “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?”

The study found that most couples were reasonably happy when setting out to have their first child, according to the self-reported measure of well-being. In the year prior to the birth their life satisfaction increased, perhaps due to the anticipation of having a baby.  After the birth about 30 percent remained at about the same state of happiness or better.  However, the rest of the couples’ happiness ratings went down, with 37 percent (742) reporting a one-unit drop, 19 percent (383) a two-unit drop and 17 percent (341) a three-unit drop. 

On average, new parenthood led to a 1.4 unit drop in happiness.  This drop is considered severe because, for example, a previous study quantified a one unit drop on average due to the death of a partner.  The larger the drop, the lower the likelihood couples would have a second baby, with the effect especially strong in those older than age 30 and with higher education. Factors impacting their decision included the difficulty of pregnancy, birth related health problems and complications during labour.  However, the most significant reason was “the continuous and intense nature of childrearing.” Parents reported exhaustion due to trouble breast-feeding, sleep deprivation, depression, domestic isolation and relationship breakdown.

Is parenting really that hard?  As a mother of a nine-month-old and a two-year-old I can sympathise with those who struggle: yes, it really is hard at times.  However, I really can’t imagine how I would say I was more happy with divorce or the death of my partner.  That statement doesn’t ring true at all on a commonsense level.  Can we be assured that circling “7” in this study meant the same as “7” for people in other studies? Moreover, so far this study has only tracked new parents for the first two years after the birth of their first child, a pretty intense period of parenting.  Is it not a bit akin to asking a marathon runner if he’s satisfied at the end of a big hill only three hours into the race?  It doesn’t take into account whether things change when you have a second child, or as children get older. 

While there are many sacrifices in having children, the experience of intense love and joy it brings cannot be found elsewhere either. You get out of life what you put in.  Surely, doing worthwhile, challenging things brings greater long-term life satisfaction and happiness than mere pleasure seeking.  Perhaps the researchers should ask childless people who have no one to visit or look after them when they are elderly and in need of support how satisfied they are – their happiness levels might well go down in later life as compared to parents.

Another factor that the study doesn’t seem to have accounted for is age.  People are increasingly starting to have children in their 30s and even 40s.  They are likely more tired and more set in their ways.  So, yes, suddenly having a little dependent 24-hour charge, no matter how cute, is likely more of a shock than in times gone by after so many years of only looking after oneself.  But is it a bad thing to be challenged to give in this way?  We all tend towards being a little selfish and self-involved and something needs to jolt us out of this and help us to develop more as human beings ourselves – just as some people use running a marathon to push themselves back into regular exercise. Having children was more taken for granted as a natural next life step in the order of things in previous generations. Now society is more focussed on individual choice and satisfying preference, perhaps we question more whether we are “happy” as parents than just getting on with it. 

However, it is also true that mothers now seem to find themselves more isolated from family and other mothers.  This is in part because many mothers head back to work pretty quickly, meaning there is no longer a network of women and families around as much during the day to offer support, companionship and an arm to hold your baby once in a while. Children are unable to run free around the neighbourhood, being intermittently looked after by other mothers at home, as our grandmothers seem to remember was the case in their day.  Career competes with child-rearing much more than it ever has in the past for women, leaving many feeling conflicted about sacrifices they are making by giving up work and torn in many directions. We have likely been told we can ‘do anything’ career wise at school, and rarely if ever advised that we should also consider the one day reality of children.  It can come as a shock to new mums to suddenly be submerged in the earthy reality of natural biology, nappies and feeding and a little being that doesn’t subscribe to schedules or plans.  

Perhaps these findings mean that that we should all be thinking of better ways to appreciate mothers and fathers and support the family unit more.  While, for many women, it is easy to gain self-esteem from a career worked in over many years, mothers nurturing and bringing up their children often contribute just as much to society, if not more, than the women doing business accounts or the women drafting supply contracts or the women marketing widgets to try to make people buy a new product, but will describe themselves as doing ‘nothing’.  Is it the productivity mentality of capitalist society that dictates this answer? Of course, many women have to work for financial reasons and many women enjoy the balance of work and find it works in their circumstances.  But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that being a mother is a really important function within society and we should all be careful to appreciate that this is the case. That includes not treating it as taboo to advise young girls to take their potential role as a mother into account when thinking about their future. Boys, too, should consider the impact of fatherhood.  Not to do so simply defies reality and does everyone a disservice.

Let’s also not forget that words just cannot describe how cute babies are, how quick they are to laugh, the adorable outfits you get to buy, how it feels when they snuggle into you, and how much joy you feel as they achieve new milestones. I imagine those feelings don’t stop as you watch them grow.  No one will love and need you more, and you have experienced the uncomprehendable honour of participating in the creation and shaping of a human soul.  While children can be difficult, most parents would choose almost any suffering over ever losing them.

One can find a thousand inspirational running slogans on the internet. Perhaps most are just as applicable to parenting.


Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...